Wednesday 16 November 2016

A 13th century chair excavated in Schiedam

The remains of the chair (upside down) at the excavation site. Photo copyright J. Loopik.

In 2013 a group of archaeologists found the remains of an almost complete chair dating from the 13th century in Schiedam, the Netherlands. I was notified of the existence of this chair almost a year ago, and the archaeologist kindly send me some photographs of the chair under embargo that I did not post the photos on the blog before the actual report of the excavation was published. As the report has been published in 2015 (Hof van Cyrene - wonen aan de Schie. Bochtafsnijding Delftse Schie, gemeente Schiedam. Rapport 3617. edited by J. Loopik. ISSN 1875-1067),  I am able to write on this unique find.

The archaeological dig took place at the site of an old farmhouse, at the place where an artificial short-cut for the river Schie is planned. This place had been under cultivation as early as Roman times and building as well as domestic materials from the 13th century were found. Also, remains of a brick foundation of a house dating from the 14-15th century were excavated.

The three cities (Rotterdam, Overschie and Delfshaven) at the river Schie with some farmhouses in between. The actual farmhouse of the dig could be one of them. Anonymous painting from 1512 made for a court decision on a ground dispute. Nationaal Archief Inventarisnummer 686. 

Several parts of the chair displayed on a gridboard. Photos copyright J. Loopik.

The fragmented chair was found in a layer with ceramic sherds from the period 1200-1250. The parts of the chair were made from several types of wood - mostly consisting of beech, while 11 parts were made from willow (pins, stile, one seating board)), 2 parts from ash (stile) and 2 parts from alder (stile, wedge). There is some indication that some parts of the chair have been replaced during its life. The beech for instance was infested by woodworm, while the other (replacement) wood was not, even though these wood species are readily consumed by woodworm as well. Also the lower quality of finish of the other wood types indicate that they had different periods of construction. 

The parts of the seating boards. You can see that the seating board has room for the chair posts at the edges. Also visible is the chamfered rim of the board. Photo copyright J. Loopik.
The front legs of the chair with the connecting stile. On top are the supporting stiles for the seating boards. At each chair post the place of the mortises for the side boards are visible - two for each chair-post.  Photo copyright J. Loopik.

This shows the other side of the chair posts with the large mortises for the complete rail. The other side has only mortises half as large (see photo above). Photo copyright J. Loopik.

The small stiles are not fixed by wedges or treenails. Therefore they are not part of the actual construction of the chair. They likely were used to (underneath) support the boards of the seat. Photo copyright J. Loopik.

 Details of the connection of the stiles to the horizontal rail.

 The turned legs of the chair have a diameter between 6-7 cm. They are decorated with grooves and end in a turned globe. Such decorations are commonly found on turned furniture from this period. The seating has a slight trapezium form and would have approximately measured 42-48 cm by 35 cm. The three seating boards (of which one broken in two) fitted in grooves at the sides and were supported underneath by small stiles. At the edges of the seating, 3 by 3.5 cm pieces were cut out to provide space for the legs of the chair. At the ends and sides the seating is chamfered in order to fit into the grooves of the sideboards of the chair. No information is given in the report on the thickness of the seating, nor on the sizes and thickness of the board of the backrest. The former, however, is likely something between 1-1.5 cm based on the width of the groove. 

One of the front legs with a part of the side board. The board contains a 0.9 cm groove for the seating; the sides of the groove are 1 cm thicker than the rest of the board. Photo copyright J. Loopik.

The backrest of the chair. The arrow indicates a mortise for the smaller stile, such as the one on the right side. 
 Photo copyright J. Loopik.

Left: One of the posts of the backrest. The decorative turned rings can easily be seen. The backrest itself fits completely into the mortise at this side, but protrudes only half on the other side, where it is diagonally wedged. Right: The protruding pins from the mortise are diagonally wedged.

The chairposts are connected to horizontal rails. These are set completely into a mortise on one side, but protrude for only a half from the other side. There, the horizontal rail is fixed diagonally with a wedge. At least two horizontal rails are at the front of the chair. Some of the willow pins have a diameter of 1.3 cm, but it is unclear at which part of the construction they would have fitted. 

The construction scheme of the chair. While the report often contradict itself with regards to which part of the chair belongs where, the construction depicted here is correct. The legs of the chair could have been larger than they are now.  Image copyright by J. Loopik.

This chair is a unique find for the Netherlands, as no other seating furniture from this period has been found. (There is only one side of a bench from the 11th century found in Groningen, that dates from an earlier period.) Such a chair is usually a luxury product, however, its appearance at a farm could perhaps be explained by the fact that the site was mentioned as a domain of the earl of Holland in 1317. Only in Germany and Scandinavia, complete examples of this type of chair dating from the same period still exist.  Hopefully it will be conserved and displayed in a (local) museum. 

Some Scandinavian chairs of similar construction and age. Left: Chair from Misterhults church, Smaland. National Historic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. Middle: A stool from Aspö Church, Södermanland. Right: Chair from Vallstena church, Gotland. National Historic Museum, Stockholm, Sweden. height 106 cm, width 60-72 cm, depth 53 cm. Images scanned from W. Karlson. Studier i Sveriges medeltida möbelkonst.

Left and middle: Skallvik church bishopschair chair dating from 1300, Soderkoping Sweden. Middle: A colour image of the Vallstena church chair. 

Chair from Norlanda Church, Visby, Gotland. The chair is made with oak chair posts and the remaining parts from ash. Mid-thirteenth century. Image scanned from Horst Appuhn. Beitrage zur Geschichte des Herrschersitzes im Mittelalter I.

Left: A painted bridal (two-seat) chair or Brudbänk dating from 1200 in Tofta church, Gotland. Sweden. 
Right: 13th century chair from Lärbro church, Gotland, Sweden.

An even older example of such a chair from grave 58 of Trossingen, 400 A.D. Image from internet.


  • Horst Appuhn. Beitrage zur Geschichte des Herrschersitzes im Mittelalter I. Teil: Gedrechselte Sitze.
  • W. Karlson. Studier i Sveriges medeltida möbelkonst.
  • Hof van Cyrene - wonen aan de Schie. Bochtafsnijding Delftse Schie, gemeente Schiedam. Rapport 3617. edited by J. Loopik. ISSN 1875-1067.


  1. A fascinating find! Thank you for sharing this. I think it is time for people to stop preaching the myth that only rich people had chairs. There are a few medieval artworks that depict common people sitting in chairs (i featured some of them in a blog posting about chairs).
    There does not seem to be any sign of the mortise for the seat on the lower ends of the back posts, thus it would seem the back was higher than it is in the reconstruction drawing. (which would be in keeping with all of the other chairs depicted). The fact that this has been found within a 13th century context but shows evidence of extensive worm damage and later repairs should put the original construction date rather in the 12th century, one would think.
    This find also illustrates a point i have been making for some time, which is that medieval manuscripts seldom distinguish objects made for wealthy people from those of commoners, in their depicted ornamentation, but are only portraying overall/general form. I am glad this chair has been recovered and is being preserved, every object of this type helps to broaden ones understanding of the often misrepresented medieval period.

  2. Can someone provide more information about the char pictured above with the caption "Skallvik church bishopschair chair dating from 1300, Soderkoping Sweden"? I would like to reproduce this chair using period techniques, it looks like a nice project for my pole lathe.
    DJ LaRue, Canada

    1. It is still in the church of Skallvik. You could try to email the local tourist office of Soderkoping. Perhaps they know how to contact the vicar and perhaps he then can make more photos for you. good luck and let me know if you succeed.

    2. I am working on it now... It took a while but I managed to find someone to take pictures and measurements. A sprained knee delayed the project a bit.
      I have completed the main turnings, and now starting on the joinery.

    3. The chair is done, except for pinning the joints and trimming a few long tenon ends. No option for pictures here, too bad.

  3. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  4. I would like to request permission to use the woodcut of two men with a crosscut saw to accompany an article I am preparing for publication. How might I proceed to obtain permission? Blockbuch Eysenhuts, 1471.

    Joseph Martin
    Romeoville, Illinois

    1. For images this old, there are no copyright or permission issues and you can legally use them. The only thing is if you want a high quality photo, you probably need the owner of the book to provide you with a photo. The owner can then charge you for use of the photo.